Interview: A Vietnam Veteran's Memories and the Wall

Soldiers' silhouette Vietnam Jungle Photography American soldiers

I was fortunte enough to interview a Vietnam Veteran, who is a family relative. Serving from August 1967 - August 1968, he was drafted in 1967, as a combat engineer and infantry. For this interview, he wishes to remain anonymous. 

What were your thoughts on the Vietnam conflict, prior to entering?

I had heard about it in the news, but the Army wouldn’t accept me because of my foot condition from a tire exploding on it in l966, so I didn’t think it would affect me. I was turned down 4 times  by the Army so I didn’t think I would have to go, but the 5th time I went for a physical, the Army decided to take me ... I really thought if my Dad could fight in World War II and return home safely, I could go to Vietnam and make a difference there. My Dad had shared war stories and I thought it would be similar to his experience, but found out very quickly it would be very different.

If you feel comfortable sharing your experiences overseas, what are some things you feel others should know/what are some stories you'd like to share?

I arrived in Vietnam in August, l967. The war was starting to get to its full strength.  I was assigned as a combat engineer with Bearcat – name of our base.  We had to get used to the heat, poisonous snakes, humidity in addition to fighting for my life and the others in our squadron. We didn’t get time to learn, we were active war fighters from day l. We could trust no one but the men in our own squadron.  We couldn’t trust men, women and even children with the enemy as they would act friendly, but later try and kill you. We were active military 24 hours a day – 7 days a week dealing with war activities trying to keep the North Vietnamese from taking over the country of South Vietnam. This meant killing others to keep myself and others alive. I will be real honest, many of the things we had to do to keep alive, are things I don’t talk about, but I did come back home alive and for that I was thankful. I did have an injury while in Vietnam. As the result of a mine explosion, I did lose part of a finger on my left hand.  The man in front of me was killed.  I was one of the first injured military who was treated at a base clinic in south Vietnam.  Others before me were sent to a base in another part of the world for treatment and recuperation.  Within a few days, I did miscellaneous duties and was back with my squadron a month later.  My hearing was also affected.  In addition to fighting war, I also built floating bridges and cleared destruction on roads so our convoys could get through.  Others built new barracks so that we didn’t have to sleep in tents.  Sleeping in tents meant for getting wet a lot.  Going without sleep for many days at a time, we really needed to be able to sleep without getting wet.

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from a previous interview,

During the time I was in VietNam I was part of a group of American soldiers that found one of the largest tunnels in VietNam.  Inside this tunnel we found many rooms and paths with over 500 weapons, candles, large amounts of rice and other items and supplies that belonged to people we were fighting against.  Army General William Westmoreland who was the commander of the U.S. forces in VietNam between l964 and l968 was there to review what had been found.  I was only about 4 or 5 feet from him. It was a real honor to be that close to an Army General - he was the closest I ever got to be to a person with so much rank.

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Vietnamese Fisher photography

How did it feel being an American soldier in Vietnam?   

I was thankful I was still alive and could return home to my family and friends.   The army did not prepare me for leaving a war zone and returning home.  I knew when I left Vietnam that American military needed to be there to protect the rights of the South Vietnamese people, but I knew I didn’t want to go back.

What did you expect when you returned to the United States?

While in Vietnam, we knew that Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had both been murdered.  Riots, against the Vietnam War, were being held on college campuses and other places  and we felt that there was another war going on in the United States.  During the Vietnam War, individuals rather than whole squadrons were released to come home.  We were not welcomed when we arrived back in the United States.

We were not to wear military uniforms, only civilian clothes.  We encountered groups of people that called us baby killers, women killers and other similar names.  I even did encounter some of those comments in my hometown.  I arrived home about 2 to 3 weeks after I left Vietnam.  I did encounter another member of the Army from Spencer, IA.  I had grown up with John and I knew he was in Vietnam, but not where he was stationed.  We saw each other right before leaving Vietnam. We really thought we would be treated better when arriving back in the United States.

When you came home, what did you feel about American involvement in Vietnam?

I felt the war was needed to stop communism from spreading throughout the world and I also felt the American military needed to be there to continue what we had been doing.  We should have never left until the job was completed.

Memorial Ceremony

Do you feel that there are things that we (those who never fought/went to Vietnam) should know?

Anyone who hasn’t fought day to day in a war doesn’t and probably never will understand what a soldier encounters during the day to day combat and what they live with after leaving the war.  How it affects you may happen right away or many years later.

Do you believe that we should remember Vietnam?   

Yes.  Vietnam was a completely different war than any that the United States had been involved in.  This is an important part of American History.  It will definitely be remembered by the thousands of  soldiers and  other military people and their families ... To the citizens of Vietnam, they will never forget the part of history in their own countries.  I have been told that American Soldiers who have returned to Vietnam recently to visit, were treated “A-1”, but I am not interested in returning to Vietnam.

Do you believe there are things we should learn from our involvement in Vietnam?

Yes, wars should be controlled by the military and not Congress.  Vietnam dragged on and on, claiming many lives and never finished.  Our troops pulled out and never completed the takeover.  Several months after American troops left the country, the country was again  one country ruled mainly by the northern officials.  Today the country is still as one country, not a divided country.

Have you visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (the Wall), located in Washington DC?

Yes, twice.  The first time approximately 10 years ago on a bus tour of Gettysburg and other Civil War Battlefield sites and two days in Washington, D.C..  As I approached the Wall, I couldn’t believe I was finally there and yes, it was overwhelming as it was for other Vietnam Veterans in our group.  Our tour guide helped me find the name of a classmate, Steven Adams, on the wall.  Steve was and still is listed as MIA.  Touching the wall brought back memories – many of which I didn’t want to remember,  but so thankful that I got to see the wall.  I remember it being so quiet there.  People were looking for names and everyone was whispering along the entire wall.  I thought the Wall was an outstanding memorial for such a tragic time in our history that I was part of.

    The second time I was at the Wall was May 12, 2018 as a member of the Honor Flight out of Fort Dodge.  Approximately l50 veterans plus support people left Fort Dodge early in the morning for a day in Washington, D.C.  Nine other veterans and myself were from  Spencer, including my brother Kenny.  As we boarded the plane in Fort Dodge, eight World War II , some Korean and many Vietnam veterans, all dressed in our red shirts and red hats, we were on our way to be treated like royalty the entire day.  What an awesome day to be a Veteran!  Seeing Washington, D.C. with a group of Veterans gave me a while new site of the city.  As our buses drove through the city seeing the war memorials and other sites, we did get off the buses at Vietnam Wall – WOW – we had three buses and there were three more from a veteran’s group in Wisconsin at the Wall at the same time.  The treatment of veteran’s on this trip was amazing – something I hadn’t experienced when I return to the United States from Vietnam.  Police escorts, meaning no stopping at red lights or stop signs, made us feel like VIPs!!  After waiting about 2 years, I was so thankful to get to experience the Honor Flight with so many other veterans, especially Vietnam veterans and my brother.  I am encouraging other veterans to apply for the Honor Flight trip.

American flag

Nowadays, what do you feel about your experiences in Vietnam?

I learned first hand that “Freedom isn’t Free” and never will be.  Someone is always in harm’s way protecting our rights.  Vietnam was 50 years ago and I am proud that I went to serve our country when I was drafted.  However, life continues on and I don’t always think about it, but during my trips to Washington, D.C., seeing or hearing items in the news and while answering questions for school projects, it does seem to bring back memories that I haven’t thought about for awhile. I wonder what has happened to the people I served with.  I know that Vietnam was a beautiful country prior to the war and I hope they have been able to rebuild their country after all the destruction.